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Maryland men’s basketball vs. Niagara preview

The Terps play their first game under Kevin Willard on Monday.

Sam Allard/Maryland Terrapins

After months of anticipation, Maryland men’s basketball’s season is finally here. The Terps will hit the court Monday at 7 p.m. to begin both the 2022-23 season and the Kevin Willard era. The game will be available to stream on Big Ten Plus.

The Terps are looking to put a disappointing 2021-22 season behind them with a successful campaign in 2022-23. Maryland finished with a losing record for the first time in nearly 30 years and had to seek out a new coach following Mark Turgeon’s departure after just eight games.

Kevin Willard has been tabbed as the new head coach of the program and is looking to make a splash in year one with a team most are unsure of what to expect from. He is looking forward to energizing the fan base with what he expects to be a strong showing.

“I’m not putting pressure on this team to go out there and have to awesome energize a fan base. That’s not what this these guys’ job,” Willard said. “These guys’ job is to play basketball, go to school, represent this university at the highest level. I think once the fan base sees how hard these kids have worked, the way they play, I think they’ll be energized just by how these guys are playing.”

To start the year, Maryland is a healthy favorite against Niagara, favored by 15.5 points, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

Niagara Purple Eagles

2021-22 record: 14-16 (9-11 MAAC)

Last season, Niagara was a middle of the pack team in the MAAC. The Purple Eagles are expected to take a step back this season, picked to finish eighth by the league’s coaches and ranked 226th by KenPom to begin the season.

Part of that expected decline comes from an offseason of roster turnover, including the loss of leading scorer Marcus Hammond. Head coach Greg Paulus, who is entering his fourth season as the program’s leader, brought in a group of transfers from a variety of levels to try and recuperate his losses.

Paulus, a former point guard for Duke, hasn’t yet been able to put together a winning season for the Purple Eagles and probably won’t be able to this season unless his team plays above expectations. Still, he will have Niagara ready to go Monday for the season opener against the Terps, as his teams have played early-season games at Rutgers, Syracuse and Ohio State since taking the job.

Players to watch

Noah Thomasson, senior guard, six-foot-three, No. 21 — The team’s only returning double-digit point scorer, Thomasson was a preseason Second Team All-MAAC selection. If the Purple Eagles are going to have success this season, he will need to replace Hammond’s offensive output. He averaged 10.8 points and 3.4 assists per game a season ago but should be able to put up a higher volume of shots this year.

Braxton Bayless, junior guard, six-foot-two, No. 4 — Bayless made the jump to Division I this season from Indian Hills Community College, where he had his fair share of success. While playing for the Warriors, Bayless averaged nine points and over four assists per game en route to All-Region IX recognition. He also had a double-double in Niagara’s exhibition win over Roberts Wesleyan, putting up 14 points and 11 rebounds.

Sam Iorio, graduate forward, six-foot-seven, No. 22 — Iorio is Niagara’s top returning forward, having averaged 8.4 points and a team-leading 6.4 rebounds per game in 2021-22. He performed well against a Big Ten team last season, putting up 18 points against Ohio State, so he shouldn’t be fazed by the XFINITY Center environment. If the Purple Eagles are going to have any chance against the Terps, they’ll need a strong showing from Iorio.

Strength

Guard play. Aided by transfer additions, Niagara has a solid group of backcourt players, at least in the starting five and first few players off the bench. Despite losing their best player at the position, the Purple Eagles will still play through their guards this year. They don’t have high expectations, but hot guard play can allow a team to punch above its weight and pull an upset.

Weakness

Frontcourt depth. Other than Iorio, Niagara has a noticeable lack of proven depth in the frontcourt. Junior Keith Kiner III and sophomore Aaron Gray both transferred into the program and will split time at the wing position but have no Division I experience. Seven-foot freshman Harlan Obioha likely isn’t ready to make an impact yet, and junior Touba Traore only averaged 2.4 points and 2.1 rebounds last year.

Three things to watch

1. First impressions. For the first time, Maryland fans will get an opportunity to see what Kevin Willard’s first team is made of. Obviously the Terps will look far different in March than they do in November, but the excitement is palpable for what should, if nothing else, be an interesting season in College Park. As a big favorite, Maryland should kick off the Willard era with a win.

“I am excited,” Willard said. “It’s been a long seven months to get to this point. Proud of the staff for working as hard as they did to put together a great roster. Yeah, a little nervous at the same time to be honest with you, but more excited to kind of get this journey started.”

2. Which team will dictate the tempo? All preseason, Willard has expressed his desire to get out in transition and speed the game up. Niagara, on the other hand, is predicted as the 28th-slowest team in Division I in terms of tempo, according to KenPom. The Purple Eagles will likely try to slow the game down to give themselves a fighting chance, but Maryland will probably counter with quick possessions and active hands on defense. Turnover margin may be the determining factor on which team will dictate the pace of play.

3. How deep will Maryland’s rotation go? Part of playing fast is having a deep bench, and a game against a lesser opponent like Niagara offers Willard an opportunity to get most of his players in the game if the Terps can get out to a sizable lead. Bench pieces like Ian Martinez, Ike Cornish and Jahari Long may all get starter-like minutes at times this season, so Monday should provide a glimpse at what they have to offer.

“We feel we have 10 guys that can play right now,” said Willard. “... I think the biggest thing we’re messing around with right now with our second group is moving some guys into different positions to kind of help them defensively or help us offensively.